Cultural background: Yosakoi Dancing

As with large-ensemble taiko drumming, Yosakoi is a relatively new style of performance that, in a few short decades, has come to represent Japanese culture internationally. Also similar to Taiko, it incorporates elements of folk culture from one region of Japan with a number of Euro-American influences, and has been interpreted in a wide variety of ways due to its popularity.

The word Yosakoi comes from an old Shikoku folk song, the Yosakoi-bushi, which was the basis of the piece that Ehime composer Takemasa Eisaku wrote for Kochi City’s inaugural Yosakoi Festival in 1954. Originally intended as a response to Tokushima’s famous Awa-odori festival, the Yosakoi festival featured a new original type of dance that makes prominent use of hand clappers that were traditionally used to scare away birds, an innovation of the composer. This celebration of rural culture, is consistent with the tradition of many summer Obon dances, which often feature gestures, lyrics, and costumes that recall the daily work of its participants. But unlike traditional Obon dances, Yosakoi was performed walking along the main streets of the shopping districts, in a bid from the Chamber of Commerce to boost spending and revitalize the local economy. It became extremely popular with the local residents, with dance groups gradually adding their own innovations to the new style of dance.

The second important step that Yosakoi took toward global popularity came in the early 1990’s, when students from Sapporo visiting Kochi envisioned a similar event in their hometown. The Yosakoi Soran festival kicked off a trend of Yosakoi festivals around the country, and also began a tradition of incorporating local folk dance into the style ? “Soran” here refers to a popular fisherman’s folk song and dance from Hokkaido. Although the original Yosakoi festival stipulates that all participants must make use of naruko clappers and at least a portion of the 1954 Yosakoi song in their performance, other festivals are less strict in their regulations, leading to the widespread incorporation of music styles and dance trends from around the world, though almost always with at least a nod to Japanese tradition in music and costuming. The vitality and flexibility of Yosakoi dancing makes it a popular candidate for Japanese festivals overseas as well, and will likely continue to evolve and develop into the future.